Jermaine Dupri made his name developing young hip-hop stars. With The Rap Game, he’s at it again.

“My life has never been about what’s outside the studio. It’s about what happens <i>in</i> the studio.”
Jermaine Dupri
Jermaine Dupri

Photograph by Ben Rollins

“You’re starting to hear people say, ‘Oh, Atlanta’s all right; Atlanta’s a cool effing city.’ And I’m like, ‘C’mon, man. Are you kidding me? I’ve been telling you that forever!’”

Jermaine Dupri, the 44-year-old record producer and rapper—the man who has probably done more for the Atlanta hip-hop scene than anyone else alive—squats on the edge of a leather ottoman in a back room of his Midtown studio, his eyes hidden behind a pair of oversize Gucci shades. Hanging on the walls around him are souvenirs from his three decades in the industry: copies of the albums Dupri engineered for Ludacris and Xscape and TLC; a framed portrait of one of his first big signees, the duo Kris Kross; a blown-up magazine cover celebrating the release of the 1997 album My Way, from a then little-known Atlanta artist named Usher. Dupri was the executive producer of My Way, and when it went on to sell six million copies in the U.S. and another million globally, it established Usher’s reputation as an R&B heartthrob and cemented Jermaine Dupri’s stature as a master cultivator of talent.

“This city, it’s always fueled me,” Dupri says, fixing his gaze for a moment on the large pet parrot perched on the other side of the room. The parrot squawks in acknowledgment—a guttural, shockingly loud cry that resembles the blast of an air horn. “The black American culture in Atlanta,” Dupri goes on, ignoring the bird, “and really just the culture in general—there’s no other city like it. Not L.A. Not New York. And so when it came time to do the show, I knew it had to be here. Had to be Atlanta.”

The show in question is The Rap Game, the Dupri-hosted reality competition that debuted on Lifetime Network in January 2016 (the first episode was titled “Welcome to Atlanta”) and recently finished its third full season. Created by Intuitive Entertainment, the same California company that made Millionaire Matchmaker, and executive produced by Dupri and part-time Atlantan Queen Latifah, The Rap Game relies on a time-honored reality TV trope: A group of talented amateurs—in this case, rappers—are hooked up with veteran talent (Dupri and a rotating cadre of musicians and producers) and coached through a series of escalating challenges. There are celebrity guest stars (Mariah Carey, Nelly) and field trips (to the Gold Room on Piedmont or the broadcast booths at Atlanta’s Hot 107.9). At the end of the season, after the final showdown, Dupri selects a winner and bestows upon her or him a multirecord contract with So So Def.

The hook with The Rap Game—and it’s a very good one—is that the contestants are all kids, none older than 18, and some as young as 11. For 13 weeks they live together in a swish Buckhead mansion, alternating down time with studio time, gradually refining their writing chops and performance skills with the help of mentors like the Atlanta producer Zaytoven. Because they are minors, each artist is allowed to bring along one guardian, and part of the show’s fun is watching the communal warmth that develops over the course of the season. There are feuds, but they are tame compared to other reality fare, and for the most part the mood in the house is mutually supportive. (An outlier was a combative Nashville artist named Tally, who got cut from season two and was brought back for season three, her demeanor more or less unchanged.)

“You can’t say that there is another show on TV that’s as positive as this show,” Dupri says. “I’m taking kids from inner cities—from Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, kids who would never get this kind of chance—and giving them the platform and the experience. It’s not like they’re just getting a tour of the studio, know what I mean?” The pet parrot squawks once in agreement.

Dupri makes it clear that The Rap Game was not the first reality show offer he’s received. In years past he’d entertained pitches for more straightforward competition shows and proposals for Love & Hip Hoptype theater—programs heavy on histrionics and light on actual music. He turned them all down. “It never excited me,” he says. “My life has never been about what’s outside the studio. It’s about what happens in the studio.”

What sold him on The Rap Game was the focus on mentorship—the molding of raw talent. “It’s my blueprint, right?” he says. “Everyone knows what I did with Kris Kross. Everyone knows that JD went to Greenbriar Mall in 1991 when he was 19 years old, and JD met two kids, talked to them, took them to his house, and next thing you know they’re a group called Kris Kross. Everyone knows 10 years later, Snoop Dogg brought this kid from Ohio to JD in Atlanta, and JD went into the studio with him, and next thing you know the kid is Bow Wow. But the process has been a mystery, and this [is] an opportunity for me to show you how it works. People really want to understand that.”

The ratings say he’s right. As of press time, in the crucial 18 to 49 demographic, The Rap Game was the number-one cable show in its Friday evening time slot. Lifetime has renewed it for a fourth season, which will air later this year, and green-lit a spinoff, The Pop Game. On the Saturday afternoon of our chat, Dupri is obviously exhausted; he’s spent the past few weeks shuttling back and forth to filming sessions for season four, while overseeing the surging careers of season one winner, 18-year-old Atlanta performer Miss Mulatto, and season two champ, L.A. native Mani. (Both Mani and Miss Mulatto have released popular singles in recent months; complete albums are forthcoming later this year on So So Def.)

And he’s still working with the superstars he made his name producing. During the gap between the end of season three and the start of season four, Dupri flew to Italy to produce longtime collaborator Mariah Carey’s new single, “I Don’t,” which debuted in February, quickly claiming a spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 list.

Dupri leans backward, propping himself up with one elbow. “But I won’t complain,” he says. “It’s what I signed up for. You don’t get this career by not working.”

Of course, the music industry that made him is not the music industry of 2017. In the 1990s, back when he was discovering Kris Kross at Greenbriar Mall, the CD was still king. Radio placement and airtime on MTV and VH1 were what dictated an artist’s success. The internet changed all that. A rapper today can build a following on social media or by distributing mixtapes long before she or he is picked up by a label. Some established stars, like Chance the Rapper, have even eschewed traditional label deals altogether, preferring to self-publish, maintaining full creative control in the process. (“There’s no reason” to sign with a label, Chance told a reporter for Rolling Stone. “It’s a dead industry.”)

I wonder aloud if all this seismic change has altered the way Dupri does business. Isn’t there an argument to be made, I ask, what with all the streaming services and social media opportunities, that someone like Dupri—a behind-the-scenes maestro, a record label head—is no longer as crucial to an artist? Dupri shakes his head. “How fans are getting your music may be changing, but in terms of what makes them pay attention to it, that’s timeless.

“I mean, are there a zillion, million ways for people to hear the music that I’m putting out? Yeah, but you gotta get it in people’s faces, and touch them, and show them that you’re passionate about your tracks. You gotta be up on stage; you gotta be in the studio, recording. Because people aren’t going to believe in you until you show them that you believe in yourself.” Above all, Dupri maintains, artists still need an experienced industry hand that can steer their development, shape their image, offer advice on beats and lyrics. “That’s what The Rap Game is about,” he says, “that grind, that hard work.”

Dupri stands up. It’s time for his photo shoot. One last question: Can the self-proclaimed “mayor” of Atlanta ever envision himself living anywhere else? Dupri laughs. Before he signed on to do The Rap Game, he confesses, he’d sold his Buckhead house and started looking for places in Los Angeles. “But when the show happened, it was a sign,” Dupri says. “Like, ‘You’ll go there for a week, and you’ll be right back here in Atlanta where you belong.’ Nah, man, I’ll be here for the rest of my life. And I’ll tell you, that’s okay with me.”

This article originally appeared in our May 2017 issue.